What "Shape" is Subjective Wellbeing?

New research explores the metaphorical contours of happiness.

Posted Apr 12, 2019

Source: Pixabay

It's a common yet intriguing observation that whenever people describe their mental state, they often invoke spatial metaphors—feeling "up" and "down," for instance. In fact, ever since the pioneering work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in the 1980s1, it has been recognized that our conceptual understanding of life is largely metaphorical. Not entirely of course: it also includes non-metaphorical concepts which emerge directly out of our embodied experience, including: (a) spatial orientations (e.g., up-down, near-far); (b) ontological concepts  (e.g., substance, container); and (c) structured experiences (e.g., eating, moving). Crucially, these non-metaphorical concepts then provide the basis for an extremely rich and complex system of metaphorical concepts. That is, our sensorimotor experiences of being-in-the-world generate various non-metaphorical concepts (e.g., spatial orientations), which then become the conceptual tools by which we understand more abstract experiences and ideas.

Such metaphorical concepts take three main forms (drawing on the three non-metaphorical forms). First, orientational metaphors; for instance, we can think in the abstract about phenomena rising or falling (“levels of happiness are rising”), or situate phenomena relative to each other in ways which confer significance (“she has power over me”). Second, ontological metaphors, which involve conferring entity or substance status onto phenomena, such as invoking the container concept to describe the mind (“full of thoughts”). Third, structural metaphors, whereby abstract activities (e.g., understanding) are frequently configured in terms of more concrete ones (e.g., perception), leading to statements such as “I see what you mean,” and the invoking of notions such as “my perspective.”

The Metaphorical Nature of Wellbeing

This process of metaphorical conceptualization applies across our experience, including our wellbeing. With orientational metaphors, perhaps the most common is that of vertical metaphors, with “up” and “down” associated with positive and negative affect respectively2. One theory for this pattern is that positive mental states are usually linked to an upright, energized posture, and negative mental states with lethargy. (It is not, for instance, the case that upwardness is always valorized. In relation to knowledge, say, “unknown” is “up” (e.g., “up in the air”) and known is down (e.g., “the matter is settled”); this is perhaps because it is easier to locate and take hold of an object on the ground than in the air.) With ontological metaphors, it is common to invoke properties such as light and heat (the former associated with happiness, the latter with anger3). Finally, structural metaphors include people depicting themselves as moving quickly from one place to another (“I was transported”), often in ways that intersect with orientational metaphors (“I was uplifted”)4. However, the metaphorical representation of wellbeing remains an under-explored topic. The few analyses there are either treat the topic selectively (e.g., focusing on a specific metaphor), or refer to it only in passing (e.g., in a broader discussion of metaphor). More systematic investigations into the topic are therefore lacking.

To this end, I sought to explore spatial metaphoric constructions of wellbeing. For this I focused on academic discourse specifically. I analysed on two prominent journals pertaining to wellbeing, the British Journal of Clinical Psychology, and the Journal of Positive Psychology. I conducted a content analysis of 28 articles published in the most recent editions—at the time of analysis—of these two journals. Across the articles, metaphors were identified, counted, and coded for valence (i.e., positive, negative, or neutral). Through this process I identified four main types of metaphor: (a) verticality; (b) horizontality; (c) configuration (i.e., involving size and shape); and (d) dynamism (i.e., relating to movement). These were subject to interesting patterns of valence, as follows, and the results have just been published in the latest edition of the Journal of Positive Psychology5.


There was considerable support for the association between wellbeing and verticality. Metaphors pertaining to “up” were far more likely to have a positive valence—deployed to reflect or represent wellbeing—often by a 2:1 ratio. For instance, when recording whether a metaphor had a positive, negative, or neutral valence, the following ratios were observed: “up” (positive = 46: negative = 22: neutral = 55); “above” (19:6:31); “over” (121:68:156); “high” (269:117:57); “rise” (9:5:5); and “elevate” (353:21:4). Conversely, metaphors pertaining to “down” were more likely to have a negative valence. However, interesting exceptions to the standard verticality-wellbeing association were observed, particularly in the usually-positive associations of downward-oriented metaphors like “base,” “foundation,” “ground,” “root” and “depth,” which imply stability and security. Thus, although there may be a general association of wellbeing with upward dynamics, it may be preferable if also accompanied by a sense of being rooted or grounded. Also of interest is the generally favorable connotation of “depth” (as in “she’s a deep person”). In such instances, the intended antonym is not height per se, but the lack of it (shallowness). In that respect, while upward metaphors like elevation are indeed usually positive, downward ones are not necessarily negative. In the case of “depth,” what we see is a valorization of expanse: whether speaking of a “peak" or a "deep" experience, both suggest the value of our interior world being spacious, and possessing range, as opposed to being shallow or cramped.


Similar valorizations of expanse can be found with the second category, horizontality. For instance, the positive-negative-neutral ratios for “broad” and “wide” were 34:5:12 and 31:6:10 respectively (as seen in the difference between calling someone “broad-minded” versus “narrow-minded”). Thus, as with the vertical preference for both height and depth—with both usually being construed as valuable—we again find the preference for one’s interior world being spacious and expansive. This trend is observed in phenomena like the “Headspace” meditation app, which alludes to an expansive and uncluttered mental realm. But the story is more complicated than a simple preference for expansiveness. Metaphors of proximity such as “close” and “near” often have a positive valence, whereas “far” and “distant” tend to be negatively valenced. Similarly, the notion of the “center” is often positive, in contrast to the often-pejorative connotation of the “periphery” or  “edge.” This differs from the implication of being at the “edge” of the vertical dimension, where the idea of “peak” or “top” is generally positive (as per Maslow’s notion of a “peak experience”6). So, while expansiveness is valued in both vertical and horizontal orientations, the former appears to hold a greater appreciation for exploring the limits of that space, whereas in the latter a more central position is preferable.


While the vertical and horizontal categories both involve orientational metaphors, the third here involves Lakoff and Johnson’s second type: ontological. Indeed, the mind itself is often conceived using this type of metaphor (e.g., as a container). Here this category includes metaphors related to size and shape. In that respect, as per the categories above, there was a preference for expansiveness, both in terms of size itself and of growth and expansion (e.g., as per the notion of post-traumatic growth7), aligning with the preferences for “height” and “breadth.” However, slightly countering the expansiveness thesis, there was a strong positive bias for “full” (where articles celebrated the mind being “full” of qualities such as hope, i.e., “hopeful”). There were also interesting nuances with respect to boundaries. As per the negative connotations of “far” and “distant” with respect to horizontality, there was a similar pejorative bias for “limit” here. However, “beyond” was generally positive, often with the implication of pushing boundaries, such as reaching one’s potential or expanding the frontiers of knowledge.


This final category involves the last of Lakoff and Johnson’s three main types of metaphor: structural (derived from structured activities, such as moving). If the vertical and horizontal categories enable us to depict our inner world as a three-dimensional space, the dynamism category allows us to imagine moving around within this (e.g., being “emotionally moved”). In that respect, the movement itself is often coded as positive (as with being “moved”), as is having “direction.” More specifically, movement-based metaphors often map onto the “approach-withdrawal” binary in psychology (e.g., the behavioral activation and inhibition model8). Thus, metaphors like “approach” and “towards” were generally positively-valenced, whereas “withdraw” and “away” were negatively-valenced. There was also a positive bias towards active metaphors, imbued with control and agency (e.g., “moving towards”), and a negative bias towards passive metaphors, where these desiderata are missing (such as something “getting away” or being “removed”).


Overall, wellbeing is associated with interior expansiveness, with positive valence usually attaching to vertical metaphors of both height and depth, horizontal metaphors of width and breadth, and configuration metaphors of size and growth. However, within this dominant theme were interesting nuances. For instance, whereas there was a valorization of limit points with respect to verticality (e.g., “top” or “peak”), horizontality featured more of a preference for central positions. Also with verticality, while “low” or “down” metaphors were generally negative, there were positive biases for terms like “base.” In sum, such metaphors arguably reveal the “spatial contours” of wellbeing, in that the space that they describe—e.g., expansive, with height, depth, and breadth—could be regarded as what wellbeing subjectively feels like. Or at least, this is the spatial aspect of what it feels like; it likely has other aspects captured by different kinds of metaphors, such as ones based around warmth and light. On that latter point, it must be acknowledged that the analysis in this study is partial and incomplete, and a fuller picture will be obtained through further such investigations focusing on other types of metaphor. On the whole, though, this new research sheds light on the spatial “contours” of general wellbeing, allowing us to better understand its subjective dynamics.


[1] Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). The metaphorical structure of the human conceptual system. Cognitive science, 4(2), 195-208.

[2] Meier, B., P., & Robinson, M., D. (2004). Why the Sunny Side Is Up: Associations Between Affect and Vertical Position. Psychological Science, 15(4), 243-247.

[3] Yu, N. (1995). Metaphorical Expressions of Anger and Happiness in English and Chinese. Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 10(2), 59-92.

[4] Stefanowitsch, A. (2004). Happiness in English and German: A Metaphorical-pattern Analysis’. In K. Achard & S. Kemmer (Eds.), Language, Culture, and Mind (pp. 137-149). Stanford: CSLI.

[5] Lomas, T. (2019). The spatial contours of wellbeing: A content analysis of metaphor in academic discourse. Journal of Positive Psychology, 14(3), 362-376.

[6] Maslow, A. H. (1972). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. London: Maurice Bassett.

[7] Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.

[8] Carver, C. S., & White, T. L. (1994). Behavioral inhibition, behavioral activation, and affective responses to impending reward and punishment: The BIS/BAS Scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(2), 319-333.